Medical Q&As

Ear pain while flying - remedies?

Could you tell me please if there is anything that I could give to my 22-month-old twins when flying? We will be travelling to Minorca on the 2nd April for one week, I have had the kids in Turkey last August and they cried the whole way over and back but had no ear infection. What would you suggest?

Discomfort in the ears is a very common problem in children and adults when flying in aircraft. The pain is often accompanied by temporary deafness and is due to differences in pressure between the air in the middle and outer parts of the ear. The eardrum separates the outer and middle ear. Air in the middle ear is usually at ground atmospheric pressure i.e. the air pressure in the aircraft before take off. As the plane climbs after take-off the air pressure in the cabin changes, which means that the air in the outer ear is at a different level to the air in the middle ear. This difference in pressure across the eardrum is the reason for the pain in the ear. If the pressures on either side of the eardrum are equalised the pain subsides. This can be achieved by opening up the Eustachian tube, which connects the back of the throat to the middle ear. Swallowing, sucking, yawning and chewing all help to open up the Eustachian tube. Gentle blowing of the nose or snorting back through the nose achieves the same effect. Some people refer to these actions as “popping the ears”. This usually gives immediate relief and eliminates the pain and restores hearing. These actions may need to be repeated as the plane descends for landing because the air pressure in the cabin changes as the plane descends to lower altitude. Giving your children liquids to drink and perhaps some treats that they can suck at frequent intervals throughout the flight should lessen their discomfort. Over the counter products such as pseudoephidrine help to dry up any secretions in nose, throat and ears and may be useful in those that suffer greatly with their ears when flying. The product would need to be taken in advance of the flight in order to achieve the desired effect. Finally, I should stress that children and adults should not fly if they are suffering from middle ear infection because the pressure changes in the aircraft would exacerbate their symptoms considerably.